SpaceX, NASA prepares first commercial taxi ride to the Space Station

The International Space Station is about to get more crowded.

NASA will launch four astronauts aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule this weekend in the first regular rotation of the company’s crew to the orbital laboratory. The trip, three months after SpaceX completed a high-profile test, will open a new era in human space flight for NASA, as commercial companies begin to dominate US missions in low Earth orbit.

“I hope people realize that this is not just another launch – it’s something much bigger,” said Michael Hopkins, commander of the Crew-1 mission scheduled for Saturday, in a NASA post on Tumblr. “Hopefully, it is preparing the ground, one of the first steps to take us to the Moon and Mars.”

For Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and founder Elon Musk, the flight culminates almost two decades of efforts to transport people and cargo. The Dragon and SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket won NASA approval for regular crewed missions this week, making them the first vehicles the U.S. has certified to transport humans since the space shuttle, which was retired in 2011.

The launch of Crew-1 is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 19:49 on Saturday, with docking scheduled for eight and a half hours later. If that attempt is rejected, a backup release would be set for 19h27 on Sunday, with coupling 27 hours later due to orbital mechanics.

In addition to becoming the first regular commercial launch for the U.S. space agency, the Crew-1 mission is also the first NASA-licensed mission from the Federal Aviation Administration. The regulator is taking responsibility for public safety because the flight will be operated by a commercial company.

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Hopkins, 51, an Air Force colonel and test pilot, will make his second stay at the space station, seven years after the first. He will be accompanied by three others on the mission:

  • Shannon Walker, 55, a Houston-born physicist, will make her second stint at the orbit lab.
  • Victor Glover, 44, a pilot in the California Navy, will make his first flight into space. He will be the first black astronaut to remain on the space station for a full six-month rotation, according to NASA.
  • Soichi Noguchi, 55, a Japanese astronaut and aeronautical engineer, has the greatest space experience among the crew and will become one of the few people to leave Earth in three vehicles: the Russian Soyuz, NASA’s retired space shuttle and the SpaceX Dragon.

The four astronauts will bring the space station to full occupancy when they join the three people who are already there. This will require changes to how mission controllers schedule the daily exercise regimen for each crew member. There will also be a pinch in the personal quarters where astronauts sleep and have time for themselves.

The space station currently has half a dozen berths for the crew and NASA is completing work on a seventh. Meanwhile, Hopkins will sleep on board the Dragon’s pod.

If that doesn’t work, a crew member can “camp” in one of the space station’s modules, David Wiedmeyer, training officer at the Johnson Space Center, wrote on November 12 in a Reddit session “Ask Me Anything” about the mission .

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began its commercial crew program in 2010 to field a replacement for the space shuttle. NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing Co. in September 2014. Boeing, which suffered delays in its work after a failed test flight in December 2019, plans a second unmanned test in the first quarter of next year.

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SpaceX completed its test flight program on August 2, when astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley returned from a two-month stay aboard the station.

Since then, the company has reinforced parts of the Dragon’s thermal shield, made adjustments so that the landing parachutes would fire at a slightly higher altitude and reinforced some areas of the capsule so that it could withstand rough seas.

Three months ago, when Behnken and Hurley plunged into southern Pensacola, Florida, recreational sailors approached the spacecraft. When the crew of the last mission returns in the spring of 2021, NASA has already announced a major move to the landing site: a larger flotilla of Coast Guard ships to keep recreational craft at bay.

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